Photo Credit: Andrea Wenglowskyj
April 3, 2022—I first met Rhianna Rogers, Ph.D., a few months ago while preparing for a project. I was immediately impressed with the insights she shared and her leadership skills. When RAND launched its Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy (CAREP) in 2020, I was delighted to learn that Rhianna was chosen as its director.
Rhianna has a remarkable background: She is an expert in cultural and ethnic studies; intercultural competencies and diversity education; cultural mediation, and virtual exchange programmatic development and implementation. Rhianna utilizes participatory action research and community engagement processes as the foundation of her work, and she also has introduced new research approaches, events, and programming.
Prior to joining RAND, Rhianna held administrative appointments and taught in higher education institutions. Most recently, she was an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies (history and anthropology) and the coordinator of the Global Indigenous Knowledge program at State University of New York (SUNY), Empire State College.
I believe the readers of Arts & Culture Connections will find beneficial the practical and thoughtful tools Rhianna shares in this interview, which can be applied to our field. I believe these insights will help us all move forward towards our goal of creating Equitable, Diverse, Inclusive and Accessible cultural institutions and arts organizations.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: You are the inaugural Director of the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy. How did this opportunity come about?
Rhianna Rogers: When I originally reached out to RAND in August of 2020, I had just learned that it was in the process of formalizing a center for racial equity. In my initial communication to RAND I wrote, “I believe now, more than ever, these types of initiatives need to move quickly to support changes in current public policy.”
Prior to my time at RAND, I had successfully built and implemented Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programming over the past ten years in higher education, at private/public corporations, and within NGOs. In my previous appointment at SUNY Empire State College, I created and ran the Buffalo Project, a longitudinal participatory action research project focused on the use of cultural data as the baseline for programmatic development and implementation. In this capacity, I worked with colleagues, research associates, and community stakeholders to implement programs that addressed perceptions of culture, race/ethnicity, and its impacts on the stakeholder learning processes.
With numerous awards, we grew the program, forming state-wide and international partnerships, and co-created Sustainable Progress and Equality Collective (SPEC) with advocates across the US. This work led me to RAND.
As inaugural Director of the RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy (CAREP), I feel the urgency to make a public policy impact. We are at a critical point in history, where enacting real policy change is not only important, but a central part of creating an equitable society for all. I believe combining RAND’s history of rigorous research with racial equity studies well-positions us to be leaders in public policy conversations in equity-based research. Through our joint research and inclusive programmatic efforts, I believe we can highlight racial equity issues in innovative ways which lead to meaningful policy development, broader access, and change.
Donna: What is your vision for the Center?
Rhianna: The Center was established in 2020 with funding from donor contributions and RAND’s own resources. The Center emerged from an effort by RAND to take stock of where it stands on how policy analysis is designed, framed, executed, and translated, and the role of factors related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The Center’s blueprint was developed with the input of RAND staff, and the Center is part of a larger commitment to advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the organization’s operations and external engagement.
Based on the founding principles of CAREP, I tend to think about the vision of the Center as more of an “us” focus than an “I” focus. That said, this is our mission: “The RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Policy aims to develop and apply approaches and solutions that build racial equity in systems and policies for the future.” We do this through building programming around three pillars:
- Methods and action: Identifying the most effective combination of approaches that can have enduring impact on systemic racism.
- Dialogue and change: Changing the narrative around how we talk about racial equity in systems and policies.
- Policy leadership: Preparing policy leaders and those that influence them to debate, design, and address racial equity going forward.
Donna: CAREP addresses critical social justice issues, vaccination equity, Anti-Asian racism, anti-bias education, as well as programs for incarcerated parents. Does your work intersect with arts and culture?
Rhianna: The Center supports RAND research in the equity space, which means we can draw on expertise across areas like vaccine equity, AAPI equity, educational equity and so on.
As a trained anthropological-archaeologist with a specialization in Indigenous ceramics, arts equity is something that personally matters to me. To that end, CAREP recently held an arts equity event with external partners in March 2022, titled “Digital Expressions of Mass Incarceration: A Data Driven Art Exhibit by LGTBQ+ Incarcerated Prisoners.” The Digital Gallery is available for viewing here: Expressions of Mass Incarceration – Journal of Engaged Research – Medium.
This took months of hard work and collaboration between partners A.B.O. Comix, Sustainable Progress and Equality Collective (SPEC), RAND’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group, and CAREP to build this innovative digital gallery which brings together research, LGBTQ+ incarcerated artists, and community stakeholders supporting work in this space.
The event pulled together folks from all levels of society and positioned two SPEC Research Associates (RAs)—Joseph Golden and Allysa Oliver (preferred name Ollie Oliver)—as the galleries curators. Below is a short excerpt from their conceptual framing of this event:
The U.S. has the highest prison population globally regarding the total number and incarceration rate per 100,000 people (WPF, 2021). Jails and prisons can be traumatizing spaces for everyone; however, they are particularly dangerous for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) individuals and anyone who doesn’t fit into gender stereotypes. LGBT prisoners face an escalation of many issues: exposure to violence, medical neglect, and profound isolation from friends, families, chosen families, and other support networks (Johnson, 2008).
Studies of prison art programs reveal that art can be a valuable tool in corrections (Johnson, 2008; Schrift, 2006; Gussak, 2007). Scholars report that artistic activities have several benefits for prisoner rehabilitation and institutional management. These benefits fit into four general categories: therapeutic, educational, prison quality-of-life, and community involvement (Johnson, 2008).
The arts can help offenders identify who they are and what is valuable to them (Schrift, 2006). By working on their artwork, offenders are given a chance to express themselves and achieve recognition. Through art, they feel pride that is not criminal pride (Gussak, 2007). Artwork offers offenders the opportunity to recognize themselves and their emotions and to view themselves differently. It is a shift in identity (Johnson, 2008).
Through a virtual art gallery featuring work by LGBTQ+ incarcerated artists, we give a platform to marginalized community members inside the prison system and help inform the public about the plight of LGBTQ+ prisoners. We will be working with ABO Comix, a collective of creators and activists who work to amplify the voices of LGBTQ+ prisoners through art.
ABO Comix will serve as the source of our artwork and the prisoners’ stories accompanying each piece. This project promotes alternative ways for people on the outside to relate to those LGBTQ+ individuals and recognize the issues affecting all prisoners — such as sexual and physical violence, medical neglect, and social isolation, which are often intensified for queer and trans people.
David Gussak. “The effectiveness of art therapy in reducing depression in prison populations” Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2007 Aug;51(4):444-60. DOI: 10.1177/0306624X06294137. PMID: 17652148.
Gary J. Gates. “LGBT Demographics: Comparisons among Population-Based Surveys” (The Williams Institute, October 2014), http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/lgbt-demogssep-2014.pdf.
Lee A. Johnson. “Place for art in prison: Art as a tool for rehabilitation and management southwest” Journal of Criminal Justice, 2008, Vol. 5.
Melissa Schrift. “Angola prison art: Captivity, creativity, and consumerism” The Journal of American Folklore 119, no. 473 (2006): 257–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137637.
World Prison Brief. “Highest to Lowest – Prison Population Total” Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research, Birkbeck, University of London, 2021.
Donna: What are the most salient issues you address and how do you activate solutions?
Rhianna: Given increased federal support to move forward actionable policy reforms in the area of racial equity, and, more specifically, with underserved populations, there are many opportunities to advance racial equity policy in and out of RAND.
However, dealing with the aftermath of a racialized pandemic has left us with the dual responsibility to address the frayed social fabric of the US and its polarization of racial policy development. To move racial equity policy forward, public policy research will need to take a joint, nonpartisan look at diverse perspectives while, at the same time, giving space to voices that have been historically underrepresented. This is a complex process that requires us to recognize that we all struggle to address equity, inclusion and justice; however, in juxtaposition, we must also acknowledge the legacy of unfulfilled policy promises within marginalized communities.
Since the Center will focus on solving racial equity problems, developing equity-minded policy leaders, and strengthening RAND’s collaborations with other organizations dedicated to advancing racial equity, we must consider the diversity of opinions and methodological approaches carefully within our work.
I truly believe if we are to move forward, one of the first steps is to build a common racial equity framework which includes diverse perspectives and nonpartisan viewpoints. This is why one of my first tasks will be to develop a repository of RAND research related to racial equity. Creating a centralized space showcasing the great work of RAND researchers is one way to systematically highlight the work already being done and showcase the diverse perspectives and methods currently employed within our organization.
Donna: In this rapidly changing social construct, which includes the war in the Ukraine, environmental justice, legislation banning books, attacks on critical race theory and laws impeding the rights of LGBTQ+ children, how is your center most effective?
Rhianna Response: Via partnerships, Board member engagement, donor-sponsored research, and fundraising, we are collectively impacting many areas that intersect the equity space.
RAND has a long history of conducting research in equity studies (please see our RAND Racial Equity research repository here: Racial Equity | RAND) In addition to these existing research threads, within the first eight months of my appointment, we have also begun new projects to expand into the following equity spaces:
Neurodiversity and equity
Dispelling inequities and distrust between communities of color
Socio-cultural gaming and equity
Deep learning series
Healthy living and mental health
Women of color in leadership
In the coming months, folks can see the progress of our work highlighted in the CAREP Forward newsletter. Given that CAREP centers voice, we would love to hear your thoughts about our work and/or ideas for areas of needed impact– you can share your thoughts and feedback thorough our Connect with Us feature on the website.
Our goal is to inform folks so that they can learn more about equity research and its impacts on public policy. That is how we make a collective difference!
Donna: What can readers of Arts & Culture Connections do to disrupt racism, discrimination and inequity throughout our respective communities?
Rhianna: I think the first step is to critically review data you consume and ask yourself: is this telling me the whole story? We are in a period of dis/misinformation and the only way to change that is to engage in open dialogue across cultural and political lines in all spaces intersecting equity.
I would encourage you to read RAND’s research on Truth Decay and the deterioration of civic and public discourse. Being informed allows more people to get involved in the policy space.
Public policy is something impacting all of us, no matter if we engage with it or not. Lack of engagement means that we are ultimately turning our collective power (and ultimately our voice) over to others. If we want to see changes in policy moving forward, we have to stay informed and engage.
To do so, we need to have more data-driven conversations in impact areas, like arts equity, to “move the needle forward.” Since these conversations may be uncomfortable at times, I have included a few tips to get folks started, which were originally published in the November 2021 issue of Forward: RAND Center to Advance Racial Equity Newsletter | RAND)
Tips for Engaging in Uncomfortable Conversations
- Stay engaged at your pace: This means remaining culturally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially alert when entering difficult dialogues and deliberative conversations (e.g. be willing to listen to others, take breaks when needed, writing comments down before speaking, sharing resources that help you articulate your point of view when you cannot, invite other perspectives to the conversation, and so on).
- Be OK with experiencing discomfort: Deliberative conversations acknowledge that discomfort is inevitable, especially in dialogues about racialized topics. It takes courage for participants to bring issues of equity into the open. Talking about these issues does not create divisiveness, but should be celebrated and respected. The divisiveness already exists in society and in our systems. It is through dialogue, even when uncomfortable, that healing, cross-cultural competencies, and change begin.
- Speak your truth:This means being open about thoughts and feelings you have and why you have them and not just saying what you think others want to hear.
- Expect, respect, and accept the process of healing and growth: This space means everyone is asked to accept uncertainty and not rush to quick solutions, especially in relation to racial understanding, which requires ongoing dialogue and active listening.
Donna: Thank you, Rhianna, for telling us about the critical and essential work you are doing at CAREP, and for the reminder of how important it is for all of us to remain engaged in the process of open dialogue across cultural and political lines.
As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.